Two Cheers for Ike

The Eisenhower Diaries

edited by Robert H. Ferrell
Norton, 445 pp., $19.95

The Declassified Eisenhower

by Blanche Wiesen Cook
Doubleday, 432 pp., $17.95

Eisenhower and the Cold War

by Robert A. Divine
Oxford University Press, 182 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Eisenhower the President: Crucial Days, 1951-1960

by William Bragg Ewald Jr.
Prentice-Hall, 336 pp., $12.95

Eisenhower’s Lieutenants

by Russell F. Weigley
Indiana University Press, 824 pp., $22.50

Santayana’s dictum may be all right for statesmen, but for historians it should be rephrased: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to rewrite it. The recent flood of Eisenhower books—a half-dozen or so this season, with a good many others on the way—demonstrates that old soldiers don’t even fade away, they get reinterpreted.

Ike was not, we are now told, lazy, tongue-twisted, and far out of his depth in the White House, as some of us who recall his reign had supposed. Rather, in the words of Blanche Cook, one of the more agitated Eisenhower revisionists, he was “the most undervalued and misunderstood statesman of the twentieth century.” In such a judgment—and Cook and the other reinterpreters give good evidence for revising our view of Eisenhower as a well-meaning bumbler—lies hope for all. Hope for presidents past, who will be deemed not so bad after all—since the past, even to those who lived it, almost always seems better than the present—and hope for historians future, who will one day (no doubt quite soon) reveal the as-yet-undiscovered greatness of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

The continual rearrangement of the past to suit current prejudices is, after all, the historian’s work. It reminds us that no judgment is ever settled and no reputation ever secure. Why are we now, twenty years after Eisenhower’s departure from office, reexamining a presidency that once seemed, at least for liberals, the very model of what an enlightened administration should not be? Eisenhower, particularly in his flaccid second term, was a daily affront to liberal activists. He was phlegmatic and seemingly inarticulate. His press conferences were comic. One would rush to the newspapers the following morning to laugh maliciously at his assaults on the language. His idea of social pleasure was a weekend with corporate board presidents, and his conception of the duties of office seemed to be eighteen holes of golf every afternoon. True, he did not get us involved in any major wars during his eight-year reign. But under the guidance of the scowling and meddlesome John Foster Dulles we seemed to be perpetually on the brink—just recall Dien Bien Phu, Quemoy and Matsu, Suez, Lebanon, the U-2. And then there was always the grating fact that instead of having to suffer Ike we might have had the best: that is, Adlai Stevenson. Gracious, witty, liberal, charmingly self-deprecating.

Well, autres temps, autres moeurs. Stevenson no longer seems the best of even a bad lot. The self-deprecation looks suspiciously like egotism, and the liberalism probably had more in common with John F. Kennedy’s cold war interventionism than with FDR’s social compassion. By contrast, Ike, to judge from what followed rather than what preceded him, seems a man of decent instincts, incorruptible and unimpressed by titles, particularly military ones, and not noticeably afflicted with insecurities. Though he was born only once and in fact did not even join a church until after …

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Letters

Dulles and Eisenhower January 21, 1982

Dulles and Eisenhower January 21, 1982

Which Catastrophe? November 5, 1981